The issue of the death penalty is a fraught one. I don’t know whether to support it or deny the state the opportunity to kill. There are some heinous crimes; vicious murders, horrific rapes and of course terrible cases of child abuse. There are people who are just plain evil. You could say the ultimate penalty should be reserved for the worst crimes committed by the worst people and you’d probably be right. Nevertheless, there are some exceptions.
On September 22 1995 in Texas Scott Panetti was sentenced to death, after he was convicted of killing his in-laws Joe and Amanda Alvarado. Scott had a long history of living with mental distress before he killed. He had more than a dozen admissions to institutions and was diagnosed with severe paranoid schizophrenia. He was also un-medicated at the time of the deaths.
At his 1995 trial, he fired his lawyers because he believed they were secretly in cahoots with the prosecution. Instead, he believed he should defend himself. So dressing like an old-fashioned cowboy, he called such people as Ann Bancroft, John F Kennedy and Jesus Christ to testify in court. He also called ‘Sarg’ (his Indian Chief alto-ego) to the stand and immediately fell into a trance-like state and began testifying. Other witnesses he called were asked about how their day was going and whether they had been on any interesting trips. He ignored pertinent legal advice and scribbled gibberish on notes passed to him by family in court. His whole demeanour was addled and confused, flippant and indifferent. He seemed blissfully unaware of the purpose of the proceedings and the dire consequences if his case failed. The question is whether he had any real understanding of what was going on. Despite the trial being described as a circus, the judge in the case allowed it to continue unabated.
Panetti killed because believed his in-laws were possessed by demons; he believed them to be dangerous and out to do harm. After the killings, Scott made no attempt to hide his crime. Instead he shaved his head, put on a suit and handed himself in to police. Hardly the actions of a clear thinking cold blood killer hell bent on getting away with murder.
While Scott was in prison, he cut off locks of his hair and sent them to his sister. And he refused medication to deal with his mental illness, believing that angels had swooped down from heaven and cured him. After being examined by a number of expert forensic psychiatrists, they determined he exhibited all the classic signs of severe paranoid schizophrenia. Flight of ideas, disorganised thought processes, paranoia and delusional thinking are all symptoms of the illness Scott Panetti is gripped by.
He committed terrible acts of violence, but was he aware that those acts were wrong or was he simply reacting to a perceived clear and present danger and therefore justified in killing Joe and Amanda Alvarado. The Texas criminal code suggests Panetti isn’t culpable for his crimes. If Panetti can’t comprehend his actions, if he can’t determine the difference between right and wrong and if he can’t understand that he’ll be put to death because of what he did and that that state sanction is imminent then the death penalty should be set aside. The clear fact is Scott should have been found not guilty by reason of insanity and spend the rest of his life in a hospital where he’ll receive the appropriate care.
Or you might take the other view. That Scott Panetti murdered those poor innocents in a cold and dispassionate way. The prosecutors in Scott’s case say he’s exaggerating his symptoms in an attempt to escape the death penalty. Well if that’s the case he has successfully fooled his entire family, a bunch of criminal lawyers and a battery of eminent doctors. Of course, the prosecutors are likely to say that he’s not really that sick. ; they tried the case and sought the death penalty. You might say regardless of his understanding about his case, Scott should forfeit his life anyway, because it serves no useful purpose anymore. You may well be right, but of course, we can’t be sure what value the rest of his life may have. By all accounts, Panetti is a model inmate, who’s turned to god and now proselytizes to new prisoners. Are we sure, his life has no value?
Written by James King